May 10 2023

ETIC 2023: State Department Develops 5G Countermeasures for Diplomats Abroad

While agencies are increasingly asking industry for 5G fixed wireless access and enterprise 5G, the technology can threaten system integrity, personal safety and privacy.

The State Department is developing countermeasures to prevent foreign adversaries from exploiting 5G or future 6G networks and the Internet of Things to target U.S. diplomats abroad, according to the department’s Cybersecurity-Supply Chain Risk Management and Emerging Technologies Working Group lead.

Speaking Monday at the ACT-IAC Emerging Technology & Innovation Summit, Louis Blazy said the technology to remotely stop a car in motion already exists, and domestic countermeasures are in place. But they’re harder to implement on foreign soil.

While the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act prohibited the use of equipment manufactured by certain Chinese companies, overseas embassies and posts are beholden to the communications infrastructure their host countries provide. China developed the internationally accepted 5G protocol, so it understands it better than any other country, Blazy said.

“5G, 6G, IoT — it’s going to impact just about every critical infrastructure sector identified by” the Department of Homeland Security, he said. “And individually, it’s going to impact you as well, in terms of your privacy and in terms of your safety.”

While Blazy couldn’t discuss confidential countermeasure specifics, he said cars with electronic sensors can be started or stopped remotely because they contain integrated circuits with vulnerable firmware on them.

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Other 5G Threats on the State Department’s Radar

The State Department also is concerned with the potential for terrorists disrupt automation technologies. Specifically, they could use 5G-enabled drone swarms to attack the energy grid.

Blazy said the grid is old and in need of a revamp (the No. 1 cause of outages after storms is squirrels, he noted). Drones could easily wreak havoc.

A final way 5G could create a public threat is in combination with face recognition technology. Questions about its accuracy aside, face recognition technology is already being used capably within closed-circuit television around the world.

5G will enable millions of these cameras in China, by far the most widespread and intrusive use case globally, Blazy said.

As such, 5G poses an emerging risk to both system integrity and personal safety and privacy.

DIVE DEEPER: 3 areas of focus for protecting federal IoT devices.

The 5G Future Is Here for Agencies

Agencies embracing remote work to attract tech talent are already implementing 5G networks where feasible. The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) at the Department of Commerce already has 5G devices, as does the Office of Personnel Management.

“What I need is high-speed connectivity wherever the worker is, whether it’s 5G or any other connection,” said OPM CIO Guy Cavallo.

Agencies also are interested in 5G fixed wireless access, so personnel can access data without a wireline connection — particularly in geographically remote areas like field offices, said Jim Westdorp, chief technologist with Ciena Government Solutions.

A final 5G trend with agencies is seeking enterprise 5G, to the point that there’s a competition between 5G and Wi-Fi within the office. The goal is seamless connectivity inside and outside the office, Westdorp said.

5G-enabled IoT is more of a mission-specific request of agencies. BIS hasn’t even thought about it, said CIO Nagesh Rao.

Meanwhile, OPM’s biggest concern is transitioning its paper-based retirement process, which hasn’t changed since the ’90s, to electronic case files.

“I don’t see a role for IoT to help in that,” Cavallo said. “I don’t want to track the paper; I want to get rid of it.”

To learn more about the 2023 ACT-IAC event, visit our conference page, and follow us on Twitter at @FedTechMagazine to see behind-the-scenes moments.

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